Thought for the day
When Jesus presses the question, who do you say I am?, we feel him speaking to us. Naturally, we think of our faith now in the light of our own journey of life and pilgrimage of faith. How did I start out? What was my image of Jesus then and how did I relate to him? Have there been major turning points for me and can I name one or two? How have I deepened my familiarity with Jesus and who is he for me now? If I were to choose an image or a metaphor what would come to kind? If I were to explain to someone what my faith in Jesus is, what words would I use?
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. (Eph. 3:14-17)
Matt 16:13 When Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” 20 Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
This story is Matthew’s version of Mark 8:27-30. There is a parallel version in Luke 9:18-20 (a typically different reception of the same tradition can be found in John 6:66-68). It is clear across the New Testament that Peter was a key figure in the early church—all four Gospels, the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles assure us of this. The foundation for this role is not simply in the call of Jesus or in resurrection appearances to Peter, but in his confession of Jesus’ identity in the scene at Caesarea Philippi. The “Petrine office” of the bishop of Rome finds its theological grounding in vv. 18-19.
Kind of writing
Like many passages in the Gospels, this is a typical chreia, in question and answer form, with an expanded “blessed” saying. The expansions in Matthew are interesting. Compare these two versions:
Mark 8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
Matt 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Old Testament background
(i) The expectation that “one of the prophets” would come back is based on Deuteronomy 18:15, in a reference to Moses.
(ii) The expectation that Elijah would return to usher in final salvation is based on Malachi 4:4-5.
(iii) “Son of God” or even “child of God” may be said of every Israelite, man or woman, on account of the covenant. However, there is a special use of Son of God in a higher sense is found early in the New Testament, and reflects Jesus’ own relationship with God (Abba, father).
(iv) The expectation that there would be an anointed agent of salvation (messiah / Christ) is not really present in the Old Testament, but it is found in the books between the OT and the NT, such as the Psalms of Solomon and the Dead Sea Scrolls. These documents are not part of the Bible; nevertheless, they help us enormously in understanding the hopes of some Jews in the early first century.
(v) “Flesh and blood” is a Semitic expression meaning frail humanity.
(vi) “Rock” is a regular image in the Psalms for God’s strength.
(vii) “Son of Man” is a regular expression the Old Testament and can refer to any human being. However, in Dan 7:13 the term gets a special meaning as agent of salvation. This special meaning lies behind Jesus’ special use of the term throughout his ministry.
New Testament foreground
The sentence about binding and losing is repeated in Matt 18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. This may well reflect the emergence of a church structure in the areas around Antioch and Syria associated with Peter and with the writing of this Gospel. This is the only Gospel to use the technical term “assembly” (= church) and it preserves five blocks of unique material about Peter (Matt. 14:28-31; 15:15-20; 16:18-19; 17:24-27; 18:21-22).
“And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed (this) to you, but my Father who is in heaven”’ (16:17). This verse adds strength to the suggestion that we may be dealing with an originally post-resurrectional context. The clause, “flesh and blood has not revealed [apokalyptein] this to you” is remarkably similar to Paul’s description of his experience with the resurrected Jesus in Gal 1:16: when God “was pleased to reveal [apokalyptein] his Son to me [ … ] I did not confer with flesh and blood.” Both Matthew and Galatians contrast a revelation from God with mere human information (“flesh and blood”). In all likelihood neither is dependent on the other; more probably, both have taken up a traditional way of describing post-resurrectional appearances.
And I tell you, you are Peter; and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (16:18). The argument for a pre-Matthean origin for the basic material contained in this verse is strengthened by the recognition of an Aramaic substratum lying behind Matthew’s Greek. In Aramaic the Greek play on the word “Peter” is marked by an identity: “You are Kepha and upon this kepha I will build my church.” Further, the Semitisms, “gates of Hades” as well as “flesh and blood” and “bind and loose,” all suggest that 16:17–19 originated in an Aramaic-speaking environment. The setting of this verse is in all probability post-resurrectional.
While one should not exclude the possibility that Jesus might have thought of building a church in the sense of organising a people in preparation for the imminent end, the reference to the “gates of Hades” not prevailing over the church does seem to suggest a permanence which would go beyond the supposed intentions of the earthly Jesus. The intentions expressed here cohere more closely with those post-resurrectional appearances described previously as “church-founding.”
What exactly is meant by the power to bind and loose? These two verbs in combination are found in at least two different contexts in rabbinic literature. Most often they are used in the sense of imposing or removing an obligation by an authoritative decision. These verbs are also used in the sense of imposing or lifting a ban of excommunication. Which meaning is intended in Matt 16:19 and 18:18? Are the meanings identical or are they being used in different ways?
A key issue is to what extent 16:19 gives Peter a responsibility that is distinguished from that given to the other disciples. Some have understood Matt 16:19 as representing the first usage; Peter seen as a chief rabbi issuing binding rules in contrast to “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:12), and Matt 18:18 as representing the second usage. Such a view presupposes Matthew’s congregation as one which had recently emerged from within Judaism and is now in tension with it.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31–39 NRSV adjusted)
Verse 13 Caesarea Philippi had associations with Baal and with Pan. The sacred nature may contrast with the confession here. “Son of Man” is used in the strong sense based Daniel.
Verse 14 This list reflects the OT above. Alone in the Gospels, Matthew names the prophet Jeremiah and seems to have a special interest in him (Matt 2:17; 16:14; 27:9).
Verse 15 The direct question jumps out of the text and speak to us today.
Verse 16 Matthew adds “Son of the living God”. Compare: “But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”” (Matt 26:63 NRSV)
Verse 17 Starting with a beatitude, the text seems to move on to a report of a revelation, which many scholars think of as after the Resurrection. The resurrection appearance to Peter is reported in the NT but never narrated.
Verse 18 The new role for Peter as Rabbi for the Christian community is described here.
Verse 19 This has to do with inclusion and exclusion in the church – an embryonic form of the later penitential practice and of the much later excommunication laws.
Pointers for prayer
1. This marks a turning point in the life of Jesus, and of the disciples. It is the first time that his disciples recognise him as the Messiah. Recall turning points in your own journey of faith when you came to some deeper understanding of who Jesus is.
2. “Who do you say that I am?” This is possibly the most important question that Jesus puts to us. In your heart of hearts, how do you answer this question today?
3. Jesus praises Peter for his faith and comments that this was not his own doing but a gift of God. Perhaps there have been times when you have been conscious of the gift nature of your faith. Be thankful for the gift you have received.
Living God, you sent your Son among us to reveal your wisdom and make known your ways.
Increase our faith, that we may confess Jesus as your Son, take up his work on earth, and trust his promise to sustain the Church.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.